Phil Hay is in Slovenia on Leeds United’s pre-season tour. Enjoy his latest tour diary.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 17
There were worried faces all round at the Fazanerija Stadium as, shortly before 4pm, the kit men from Leeds United and Ferencvaros realised that both had arrived with white shirts.
The colours were not a complete clash - Ferencvaros play in white tops, green shorts and green socks - but it was immediately clear that a compromise would have to be reached.
United’s staff travelled for an hour from Ptuj and had no desire to make a return journey to the team hotel. Budapest is fully 300km away from Murska Sobota and the tone of the Hungarian being muttered at pitchside indicated that Ferencvaros were not for turning either.
In the end, a decision was reached and Leeds agreed to wear their training kit in the first half in return for Ferencvaros doing the same in the second. Diplomacy at its best.
Leeds United managing director David Haigh was not the only senior club official in attendance at last night’s game.
Ferencvaros president Gabor Kubatov also made the effort to travel down from Hungary and take in the friendly. He and Haigh met before kick-off.
Ferencvaros are in a similar state to Leeds - working through pre-season and gearing up for the first weekend of the Hungarian term. It gets going on July 27 with Ferencvaros away to Pecsi MFC.
Leeds were outnumbered in the streets of Murska Sobota yesterday but predictions of 800 Ferencvaros supporters journeying to Slovenia proved to be excessive.
There was something in the region of 300 present and the crowd as a whole was on a par with that seen at the ground during Leeds’ 3-1 win over Pomurje, if far less subdued. Ferencvaros like to make themselves heard and make themselves seen.
Predictably, Fazanerija Stadium had far more in the way of stewards and police officers than were present at last Wednesday’s friendly in the city.
The boys in blue carried out an extensive sweep of the ground and did not let the two sets of fans anywhere near each other, but kick-off was delayed for several minutes as riot police tangled with Ferencvaros behind one stand.
A big thankyou to @SloveniaInfo for supporting the YEP’s trip to Slovenia and to @Sloveniafooty for his impressive knowledge and tip-offs over the past eight days. Much obilged.
TUESDAY, JULY 16
For the past week Leeds United’s squad have been training in Kidricevo, a small village outside the town of Ptuj in eastern Slovenia.
Their training ground is part of the complex which houses NK Aluminij, a second division club. The facilities are not exactly state-of-the-art but the pitches are tidy and well-kept and Aluminij have more space to work with than the average lower league side in England could dream of.
Yesterday morning Aluminij completed their own training session while United were passing their way through a lengthy routine devised by Brian McDermott. (So much of training is devoted to encouraging the players to pass the ball and work space out wide. Hoofball it aint.)
Aluminij’s players were fascinated by United’s work, glancing constantly towards them squad for as long as they were out in the sun. Leeds have created a stir here.
The schedule in Slovenia is keeping United’s medical staff busy. At training yesterday there was the odd scene of physio Paul Perkins massaging Noel Hunt and Sam Byram on tables set up behind the back of his transit van. The look on Hunt’s face told you that this was no pampering session.
There was never a risk of players getting bored in Slovenia. On top of matches, training and the sightseeing opportunities (not always a preferred past-time for professional footballers) their hotel has tennis courts, a golf course, the lot. Needless to say it’s an absolute snip - at 150 Euros a night.
Numbers have been a little sketchy on this trip with regards to crowds and attendances so it remains to be seen if Ferencvaros’ supporters turn out as planned.
If they do, the best part of 1,000 of their fans will be at tonight’s match in Murska Sobota. At the last count Ferencvaros were reportedly bringing 800 from Budapest - double the entire attendance at the friendly against Pomurje last Wednesday.
Ljubljana is rated - online anyway - as the fifth safest city in the world which seems about right. It is also regarded as one of the most honest, as their parking meters prove. Two hours in the capital costs you 1.40 and the machines refuse to accept a cent more. “They can’t take money which isn’t theirs,” said one local who has evidently never parked his car in Britain.
MONDAY, JULY 15
As with most pre-season tours, there’s been very little in the way of trouble during Leeds United’s stay in Slovenia.
A couple of arrests were made in Murska Sobota last Wednesday and an incident in Ljubljana on Friday night left one supporter with a badly cut leg. But between 200-odd fans at United’s first game and 450 at their second, the problems have been few.
Tomorrow’s match against Ferencvaros - the third and last of this tour - will almost certainly be the most difficult to steward. Many of United’s crowd headed home after the defeat to Domzale but those who remained have been told to expect sizeable numbers coming from Budapest.
Last week’s visit to Fazanerija Stadium did not mark it out as an especially security-conscious ground. Every part of the stadium - including offices and the trophy room - was open and unattended for hours before kick-off.
More on Joshua Parker, the only English member of Domzale’s squad on Saturday night.
The former Queens Park Rangers striker spent time mixing with Leeds supporters after the game, no doubt enjoying a bit of easy conversation in his native language.
His transfer to Domzale after leaving Oxford United was a brave move into the unknown but Parker told the YEP: “I said to my agent that I wanted a change - no more League One or League Two but a style of football that suited my game better. I liked the idea of coming to Europe.”
Parker’s agent is Serbian, as is Domzale’s manager, so the dots were joined easily and Parker signed a two-year deal last month. If United’s players thought a training session ahead of the Domzale game was hard work, they had nothing on Parker. He spent Saturday morning moving house.
Why the sudden surge in the performance of Domzale during the last half-hour of their friendly against Leeds?
No doubt because 10 of the 11 substitutes used by coach Stevan Mojsilovic had started their Europa League match against Astra Giurgiu on Thursday. The Leeds players who saw out the friendly had the misfortune of catching Domzale at virtually full strength.
One of the biggest concerns for journalists travelling abroad with Leeds United is that poor or non-existent Internet connections will leave you helpless.
On the contrary, there is virtually nowhere on the beaten track in Slovenia where free WiFi is not available, even for a limited time. Shops, pubs, stadiums and supermarkets all take the view that Internet access is part of the service. We’ve all been grateful.
SUNDAY JULY 14
The saga with tickets in Slovenia took another twist last night with a post-match concert sold to supporters at Domzale’s suggestion cancelled without any official announcement.
The gig - featuring a Beatles tribute act - was not exactly cheap at £13.50 for adults and £9 for juniors and it took a tip-off from a Slovenian reporter for news of the cancellation to spread.
As a consolation, Domzale offered non-live music in the bar beside the club’s offices. Most fans declined having spent the afternoon drinking there.
The Slovenian football season started on Friday with Maribor beating NK Zavrc. Domzale were due to begin their own campaign against Celje yesterday but opted to postpone the match and fit Leeds United in after playing Romanian side Astra Giurgiu in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League.
The foray into Europe did not go well for Domzale, beaten 1-0 at home and eliminated after a 2-0 loss in Romania on Thursday night. Celje, who also competed in the Europa League this week, fared no better and fell to Tromso at the first hurdle. Several Leeds fans made the effort to attend that second leg of Celje’s tie.
Security staff at Domzale’s stadium were not anticipating the riotous welcoming reception given to Leeds United squad as their coach arrived.
One bouncer, an open gate and hundreds of supporters massed in front of the pub next door, one of them completely naked. United’s players and staff struggled to find the words...
The beer has flown here like the river through Ljubljana. The owner of the Cutty Sark bar in the capital could retire on Wednesday morning with the proceeds of the past week.
But supporters hoping for a drink in Domzale were disappointed after entering the ground. Slovenia law bans all sports stadiums and indoor arenas from selling alcohol.
Local media interest in United continued with Slovenian channel Sport TV compiling a feature on the Elland Road club yesterday. Their interview with a certain YEP journalist and his thick Scottish accent will take some translating.
SATURDAY, JULY 13
The situation with ticket prices here is a mystery. One for United’s fans, another for the locals and no-one able to explain.
It is not difficult to understand, however, why a club like tonight’s opponents - FC Domzale - might want to cash in on this friendly.
Slovenian Premier League side have an average budget of around 400,000 Euros (Maribor’s spirals to around 2.5million Euros) and Domzale sell season tickets for just 60 Euros each.
The maths are not difficult to work out. Upwards of 500 Leeds fans paying 15 Euros each, even before the beer and food generates other income: not bad for a club whose average attendance last season is recorded as 600.
This tour to Slovenia is Ross Killock’s first with Leeds United’s senior squad and his 19th birthday just happened to fall in the week of the trip.
As a reward, if that is the appropriate term, he was offered the chance to sing a song, tell a joke or give a motivational speech to the rest of the players before yesterday’s two-hour training session. He chose the latter.
Brian McDermott’s 50 Euro note is alive, well and still in the hands of Leeds United’s supporters, despite the crate of lager it allegedly bought in Murska Sobota on Wednesday evening.
The recipient of the hand-out from Leeds United’s manager – as seen in Thursday’s YEP – used his own money for the drinks and kept the note in the hope of having McDermott sign it.
He duly obliged during training yesterday, autographing one side and creating a unique if expensive souvenir which is likely to be framed when it gets back to England.
“Really?” replied a bemused McDermott when told of thE plan.
“They must be mad. If that was me I’d have spent it!”
Ferrying Leeds United’s players and staff to Slovenia was only half of the battle. A transit van is needed to transport all of the kit, boots and equipment to and from training and matches.
Flying the extras out is virtually impossible – too much and too heavy – so how did it arrive in Ptuj ahead of schedule last Sunday?
On this occasion, kit men Chris Beasley (son of former United goalkeeping coach Andy) and Shaun Ford drove non-stop from Leeds to eastern Slovakia in the space of 24 hours, taking shifts to ensure their arrival without a break.
They took the ferry from Dover to Calais and passed through Germany and Austria, covering more than 1,150 miles and arriving in Ptuj before United’s plane had even taken off.
Their time as White Van Men in Slovenia has exposed them to the map-reading skills of assistant manager Nigel Gibbs who sits in the back with no windows, shouting out instructions.
Reports from the training camp say his directions are flawless.
FRIDAY, JULY 12
Unless the next few days hold something in store, this tour of Slovenia will be remembered for the night when Brian McDermott got the beers in.
A picture of the Leeds United boss passing a 50 Euro note into the crowd at Fazanerija Stadium - brilliantly captured by YEP photographer Jonathan Gawthorpe - was retweeted thousands of times on Wednesday, enhancing McDermott’s reputation as a diamond in the rough of professional football.
The recipient of the money was Dan Lambert, one of 300 fans at the ground, and the cash stretched to 25 bottles of Union Lager. One of Lambert’s drinking colleagues, Steven Cockx, said: “It went down really well. We’re glad to feel valued for being out here, as opposed to a token gesture wave.”
As for why United’s supporters invoked the chant of ‘it’s your round, Brian’, it seems that McDermott is a victim of his own generosity.
“I think they found out that I did that while I was at Reading,” McDermott said. “We were in Cardiff once and I saw a few fans in the pub. The Leeds fans have cottoned onto that and it’s going to cost me a few quid this season.”
Sharp-eyed supporters at Wednesday’s game between Leeds and Pomurje noticed that tickets at the gate were selling at 6 Euros at go - markedly less than the price of £13.50 set for United’s fans before the tour of Slovenia began.
Without explanation, tomorrow’s match against FC Domzale shows similar disparity. Those who roll up on the day will be charged 8 Euros, a lower sum than the 15 Euros their guests coughed up in advance.
At the risk of crying over spilled milk, the variation is contrary to the spirit of pre-season matches, not least because Leeds’ presence at Domzale in particular will generate decent income for the Slovenian club. More on this to come.
What was it David Brent said? “Slough is a big place.” Big enough anyway to put a man in both camps during United’s clash with FC Domzale.
Brian McDermott’s Berkshire roots are common knowledge and he was born in Slough before playing for and managing the local club, Slough Town.
Josh Parker on the other hand will only ring a feint bell. The sole English member of Domzale’s squad is a former QPR player and someone who once shared a dressing room at Oldham Athletic with Leeds striker Matt Smith.
Last month, aged 22, Parker leapt into the dark and signed for Domzale, making him - apparently - the third Englishman to play professionally in Slovenia. For perhaps the only time in his entire season, he will find something of England in tomorrow’s match.
THURSDAY, JULY 11
One of Slovenia’s leading sports papers devoted a full page of coverage to Leeds United’s first friendly, noting that the old Eastern Bloc is attracting more and more clubs for pre-season.
Ekipa, a daily broadsheet published in the capital Ljubljana, found room for analysis of Leeds in amongst a huge feature on Bayern Munich who are staging a training camp close to Lake Garda in nearby Italy.
The Slovenian journalists had their history of United well mapped out, describing a “fallen giant” who “until recently represented a strong fortress on the English football map. Then the ship began to sink.” Quite.
Ekipa’s view was that United’s presence in Slovenia had attracted more attention than any other tour, a comment which put Reading, West Bromwich, Valencia and others in their place. A glowing piece was blotted only by a photo caption about United’s friendly in Norway last summer - printed over a picture of their supporters massed at Torquay. The seagulls gave it away.
Goalkeeper Darjan Curanovic has trained with Leeds United during their tour of Slovenia and local football reporters expected him to play in yesterday’s friendly in Murska Sobota.
In the end, Curanovic did not feature against Pomurje’s representatives but the mention of his name still raised a few eyebrows. He is not altogether unknown in England.
This time last year Curanovic arranged to join Portsmouth on trial at their Spanish training camp. The 26-year-old told our friends at Ekipa that the opportunity was “a dream come true”.
Then it all got interesting. A video montage of some of his performances - posted on YouTube by the keeper himself - gave Pompey the jitters, showing dubious positioning and plenty of difficulty with bouncing balls. The invitation was withdrawn and Curanovic sat tight at Triglav Kranj.
Leeds are slightly short of keepers with Jamie Ashdown recovering from injury and Curanovic is essentially making up the numbers. There is no likelihood of him arriving at Elland Road.
Slovenia grows dark by around 9pm at this time of year so the late decision to change the kick-off time of last night’s friendly was a sensible one.
ND Mura 05, the club who use Fazanerija Stadium week-to-week, have never been wealthy and presently carry debts of around £1.5million. As yesterday’s diary recorded, they are up a certain creek without a certain implement.
Fazanerija hosted Premier League fixtures last season yet the ground does not possess any floodlights, as far as any of us could tell. The half-hour shift to a 6pm start ensured that the players could still see the ball by the time full-time arrived.
WEDNESDAY. JULY 10
Leeds United play a representative side from Slovenia’s Pomurje region tonight.
Pomurje have named a 26-man squad: Denis Banfi (NK Grad), Matej Andrejč, Damjan Kaučič, Rok Ropoša, Jernej Trstenjak (NK Veržej), Jernej Janža, Jaka Šafer, Damjan Grah (NK Tromejnik), Uroš Bagari, Marko Lapoši, Rok Godvajs, Aleš Kalamar (NK Rakičan), Mitja Mauko, Tomaž Recek (NK Čarda), Tadej Vogrinec, Primož Smolkovič, Aljoša Kuzmanovski (NK Ljutomer), Jernej Slavič, Aleš Kerec, Jernej Tkalec, Marko Smodiš (ND Beltinci), Dejan Mlinarič, Mitja Žerdin, Dejan Sreš, Rok Vouri, Bojan Matjašec (NK Odranci).
Dejan Sreš, a 25-year-old midfielder, is considered to be the pick of Pomurje’s bunch.
All 26 of the players selected feature domestically in Slovenia’s third division east.
The YEP shared its flight to Ljubljana with a smattering of Leeds United supporters, including Gary ‘Paint it White’ Edwards and Mick Hewitt - organising pre-season tours since 1981.
Big Mick (not to be confused with Little Mick Hewitt, another pre-season regular) has arranged the itinerary for travelling Leeds fans for more than three decades and every year without fail from 1984 onwards. A total of 30 are on this summer’s trip to Slovenia, including Jonny Howson’s brother Danny.
The summer of 1981 took United to the Ikast tournament in Denmark while the warm weeks of 1984 were spent in Marbella (the refuge of Hewitt’s wife while he’s on the loose in Eastern Europe).
His most memorable tours were Japan in 1991, when a total of eight supporters travelled, and the World Cup year of 2002 which sent his party to Japan, Singapore, China, Australia and Thailand. “That was the last great tour,” he says.
And the worst? “Boden in Sweden,” Hewitt recalls. “It was a one-horse town. One Thursday night we were walking past a pub and we shouted to the landlord to ask when he opened. He said ‘Tuesday’.”
Given that Leeds United are to appear twice at the Fazanerija Stadium in Murska Sobota, it stands to reason that they might play the ground’s tenants - ND Mura.
Sadly, Mura (or ND Mura 05 as they are officially known) will be liquidated in the near future after going bankrupt. A meeting arranged recently to discuss the club’s future came to nothing when a number of board members failed to turn up.
As recently as 2012 they were playing Lazio in the play-off stages of the Europa League but journalists in Slovenia expect the club to fold, reform and beginning competing again in the country’s fifth division.
The clue pointing to the fact that this is not Mura’s first dice with death can be found in their name. Back in 2005 they were dissolved for similar reasons and forced to start again. History is now repeating itself.
United’s training base in Ptuj is not so random a location as it might sound.
McDermott embraced the facilities repeatedly while he was manager of Reading but West Bromwich Albion spent part of one pre-season there during Roberto Di Matteo’s reign. Valencia have also made use of the city in the past.
Such is the regularity of professional clubs’ attendance that numerous reviews of Leeds’ hotel on the Internet site Trip Advisor make reference to football tours. By all accounts it has not disappointed this time.
The kick-off times for both tonight’s friendly and next Tuesday’s match against Ferencvaros have been moved at the last minute from 6.30pm to 6pm local time, or 5pm BST. The scheduling for Saturday’s 7.45pm start remains unchanged.
The Yorkshire Evening Post’s coverage of Leeds United’s pre-season tour to Slovenia is in partnership with SPIRIT Slovenia - Slovenian Tourist Board and Ljubljana Tourism. Visit www.slovenia.info and www.visitljubljana.com for information.